The craftsman’s guide to Woodford Reserve and creating the perfect Old Fashioned cocktail.

The story starts in 1881 in Louisville, Kentucky, at the legendary Pendennis Gentleman’s Club, where a barman was inspired to create the first Old Fashioned. For the uninitiated, the Old Fashioned is a classic American cocktail steeped in rich history of Woodford Reserve and was created in honour of Colonel James E Pepper, a prominent bourbon distiller and aristocrat who brought the recipe to the internationally acclaimed Waldolf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.

The Old Fashioned cocktail infused with what is known as America’s classic and preferred choice of bourbon, Woodford Reserve, has started to grab the attention of connoisseurs in South Africa with its superior taste.

“There is a growing appreciation towards classic and thoughtfully prepared bourbon based craft cocktails in South Africa. That has given rise to the increased consumer demand for handmade, complex, and deliciously tasty drinks.  With handcrafted bourbon gaining so much traction in the local market, the Old Fashioned is being rediscovered and enjoyed in modern ways,” says Marson Strydom, Woodford Reserve Brand Ambassador. Old Fashioned it may be, but it’s a taste that in Strydom’s view has stood the test of time and is still very much appreciated today by movers and shakers of this century. “The modern version of the Old Fashioned cocktail is tailored to a more distinguished palate, with the choice of bourbon remaining the backbone of the drink,” says Strydom.

The history of cocktails, and for that matter, how the name came about, remains a debate. What we do know is that the first definitions for cocktails appear in the early 1800s. The first bartender’s guide to mixing drinks, written by the legendary Professor Jerry Thomas, made it to print only in 1862.

Speaking of the 1800s, the Woodford Reserve distillery is one of Kentucky’s oldest and smallest, sitting on the site where the country’s whisky crafting began in 1812. It is the only distillery in Kentucky that still makes bourbon using the traditional copper pot stilling method of distillation. The Distillery is home to a 150-metre-long gravity-fed barrel run, and a 100-year-old cypress wood fermenter. It boasts one of the few heat cycled barrelhouses in the world, which is important because it ensures that every drop seeps into the charred and toasted white oak, giving Woodford Reserve its colour and signature flavour.

Strydom says most bourbon is aged for at least four years, but Woodford Reserve pays no attention to the calendar, as each barrel matures at a different rate. Rather, it is up to Master Distiller, Chris Morris, to determine when each barrel is ready to be bottled. Woodford Reserve is not manufactured, but rather crafted in small batches. It’s this meticulous artisanal process that gives the Old Fashioned its distinct taste, when paired carefully with the five sources of flavour:

1.     Grain recipe: The grain recipe includes higher rye content than most bourbon, as rye allows the whiskey to have a uniquely spicy character.

2.     Water source: Iron-free limestone filtered water, which is full of rich minerals is key in the fermentation process.

3.     Fermentation: The process is among the longest in the industry. It creates a great depth of character and a complex range of flavours. The fermentation process provides Woodford Reserve with its depth of character and complex range of flavour.

4.     Distillation: The perfectly balanced flavour of Woodford Reserve comes from a careful batching process of whiskey distilled in pot stills and whiskey distilled in column stills.

5.     Maturation: The bourbon matures in new, charred, white oak barrels, then ages in a heat-cycled warehouse until the flavour is just perfect.

Making the perfect Old Fashioned

One thing you have to remember about crafting this classic, above all else, is that each part is as important as the rest. Think of it as constructing a cocktail rather than mixing it.

Step 1: Pour a minimum of 50 ml of Woodford Reserve into a mixing glass. This is the hero of the Old Fashioned and is poured first, to allow the other ingredients to infuse while the drink is prepared.

Step 2: Add 12,5ml of Demerara sugar, 3 dashes of Angostura bitters and 2 dashes Orange bitters and fill with ice.
The caramels and spices in the demerara sugar enhance the rich bourbon flavours and give back what the melting ice takes away. Syrup dissolves more easily than granulated sugar; best ratio for syrup is 1 part water to 1 part Demerara sugar. This allows for bold flavours in the syrup without diluting it too much. The spice of the bitters briefly masks the top notes of the liquor and complements the rye in Woodford Reserve.

Step 3: Stir well for about 30 seconds. That’s important because stirring is an integral part of making the Old Fashioned. Stirring too much will dilute the drink, leaving it flavourless; stirring too little will not chill the drink enough and will cause the bitters to overpower your Old Fashioned. As Old Fashioned consists mostly of liquor, you want just enough dilution to open up the drink and experience all those wonderful flavours of Woodford Reserve.Ice plays a big role in making an Old Fashioned. Different types or shapes of ice will dilute at different rates. For example, ice from your fridge contains lots of trapped air. When the ice melts enough for the air to escape, it’s left with thin ridges around the pocket, which increase dilution. Added to this, ice from your fridge tends to break or chip more easily, which increases dilution. If you do use ice from your fridge, just take into consideration the increased dilution. The best ice to use would be artisanal ice. Directional freezing is used to ensure that no air is trapped inside the ice and takes about 48 hours to freeze. The best size would be 4 cm x 4 cm cubes and should fit standard glassware and mixing jugs.

Step 4: Strain into a tumbler glass filled with ice. The ice in the glass will keep the drink cold for longer. It will also start melting after a while, which dilutes the drink even further – another reason you don’t want to over dilute your drink while stirring. Once again, artisanal ice is best because your Old Fashioned will stay colder for longer and you won’t have the same dilution as when using normal freezer ice.

Step 5: Fold a sliver of fresh Orange peel, spraying the juice into the glass. Run the folded orange peel along the rim of the glass to release the oils, then submerge it into the liquid. The oil from the peel that lies on the surface of the drink acts as the appetiser to the Old Fashioned as the main course. The fragrant aromas from the oil awakens appetite and prepare the palate for the Old Fashioned. When spraying the oils into the drink, hold the sliver 1 cm to 2 cm away from the glass. The heavier oils, tasting slightly bitter, will fall first, missing the glass, while the softer, sweeter, more fragrant oils will gather on the top of your drink. Oranges that come from the fridge won’t produce as much oil because all the cells have been condensed, making it harder to extract. If the skin of the orange looks wrinkled it’s probably too dry and won’t have much oil left. A ripe orange in its prime at room temperature will produce the best oils. Incidentally, the oils in the orange skin are flammable. When ignited, they provide great theatre, but rarely add flavour to the drink. This is not advised if you’d rather enjoy the aromas of the oils than have them burnt away in a show.

Step 6: Take a moment to enjoy what has become one of the world’s most loved cocktails – the Woodford Reserve Old Fashioned. It’s often noted that an Old Fashioned takes too long to make; however, the intrigue of the drink lies in the theatre. Your technique and showmanship behind the stick should captivate the consumer and provide an opportunity for conversation and entertainment. Craft carefully. Drink responsibly.